Monday, November 13, 2017

We Know in Part or Not at All: A Review Essay Based on "Knowing and Not Knowing" (Beth Lilly retrospective at Swan Coach House Gallery) and "Medium" (Zuckerman Museum of Art)


Several writers have suggested that today’s America is trapped in an “epistemic crisis.” What the writers mean is that America is divided into groups that do not accept one another’s sources of information as communicating anything that could be called knowledge, or even evidence that could lead to coherent knowledge. There are no generally accepted authorities whose investigations cannot be called into question as “completely fake.” The paradoxical result is that completely fake stories can become widely accepted in a matter of hours; made up out of nothing by an online writer, illustrated with miscaptioned photographs stolen from unrelated articles, a fantastic tale will be repeated as truth so often that it becomes the top result in a websearch on the topic.

Of course, this dynamic played out in past eras, only more slowly. Before the invention of photography, woodcuts provided visual confirmation for the bizarre tales that circulated on broadsides, and before that, oral tradition elaborated ever more fantastically on fabricated narratives. Wise souls long ago learned to ask whenever possible for first-person confirmation, or “I’ll believe it when I see it,” which wiser theorists of knowledge almost as long ago corrected to “I’ll see it when I believe it.” What we see is partly determined by what we expect to see. Therein lies a larger issue, quite apart from the specific crises in knowledge today, that deserves the exploration that it has received in the autumn of 2017 in two Atlanta art exhibitions. (Actually, there have been at least two other exhibitions that raise the issue by implication; for my response to one of these, an Agnes Scott College exhibition on artists’ response to climate change, see—as of November 13, 2017—here.)

These two or three independently conceived but intimately related shows should have dominated artworld conversation, but life and larger epistemic crises tend to intervene. As it is, the exhibition that closed on November 8 stirred almost no conversation, and the one closing on December 3 deals with such vast hypotheses that its central thesis remains elusively but enticingly out of focus.

Beth Lilly’s “Knowing and Not Knowing,” a midcareer retrospective curated by Marianne Lambert at Swan Coach House Gallery, incorporated our central theme in its very title. And yet the title yields several different meanings, just as does “Medium” at the Zuckerman Museum of Art. But let the Zuckerman’s tales of mediums and media remain untold for the moment; we have an epistemological journey to make with Beth Lilly and the limits of story, history, and photography.

Lilly tests the limits right up front with The Oracle@WiFi and Every Single One of These Stories Is True, both of which series have been published as books as well as the individual prints from which the photographs on exhibit were extracted. Taken together, the two offer an impressive range of reflections on evidence, imagination, and rules of evaluation.

The Oracle@WiFi came about as an outright fiction about divination, but one enacted in real time. Lilly stated outright that she made no claims to oracle status, but would play the role by taking three photographs in response to a question not yet asked, when the questioner phoned to request a reading. After taking three photographs in quick succession in her immediate surroundings, Lilly would transmit them to the questioner while asking what question they had had in mind. Oracle and querent would then discuss the possible meaning of the photographic outcome. Often the images would bear an uncanny relationship to the details of the question, as when a question about “choice” resulted in three photographs of situations in which choices had to be made among multiple objects or options. Often the images were more ambiguously related to the original question.


The process of interpretation involved extracting meaning from images created without prior knowledge of the situation for which they would be asked to provide data. What is of interest here is less the mind’s ability to project meaning into any unconsciously assembled pattern (for Lilly was not snapping pictures randomly, but rather seeing subtle patterns in the world around her, as any photographer does), but rather, the uncanny parallels between Lilly’s arbitrary pattern and the words in which a large or quite specific topic had been expressed. The correspondences were enough to make any of Lilly’s pronouncements seem prophetic, even as she made no claim to actual knowledge of the future.

The ambiguity expressed in this postmodernized version of prophecy is reinforced by the staged re-enactments of Every Single One of These Stories Is True. Lilly holds firmly to the veracity of every story told in the handwritten text framed alongside the staged version of the episode, even though—and/or because—all the stories have the air of tall tales. Lilly’s great grandmother knew all the details of a road mishap before the men to whom it happened had arrived home to tell them. A toy red elephant seen in a dream appeared in reality years later, in a bowl where neither Lilly nor her housemate had placed it.
These tales are placed under suspicion only by Lilly’s presumably forthright confession of possibly unreliable memory and outright mental illness in family members. One of Lilly’s aunts believed that any lost item had been stolen by the hippie she was convinced was hiding in her basement.


Lilly herself recalls that her earliest childhood memory involved finding her cousin’s birthday gifts wrapped in black paper. “Later, I asked my Mom why she’d wrapped these in black paper. She said that had never happened. She said it must have been a dream. Maybe, but she has schizophrenia so I’m not sure I can trust her memories.”


This witty double spin on the reliability of memory—each party casting doubt on the accuracy of the other’s recollection—foreshadows the games Lilly will later play with the theme of “knowing and not knowing”—not, be it noted, “knowing or not knowing.” All of us know and do not know at the same time, although what is known and not known shifts according to the situation.



Sometimes this involves simple obliviousness, as in a hilarious set of staged and photocollaged images in which happy families are photographed against a green screen and scenes of impending or already present disaster are inserted behind them, creating a comic tableau of “What, me worry?” as their world collapses without their knowledge. Other obliviousness is captured documentary-style, in photographs of drivers in their cars on the Interstate who are clearly encapsulated in their own private worlds, unaware of the gaze of others.


Lilly titles these latter images with texts from Chinese fortune cookies (e.g., "You are headed in the right direction. Trust your instincts."), linking them to her fascination with our need to define the future, or if possible, to foretell it with certainty.
Lilly also has photographed her own partial view of things seen from the road, or of landscapes at night where what is concealed by darkness creates a sense of uncertainty that translates more often into pleasing mystery rather than threat. Once again, what we see depends on what we believe. A suburban street can seem poetically placid or harmlessly spooky, but the same scene looks considerably different with the prior expectation of lurking intruders or predatory animals.

This sense of shifting perceptions or intrinsically blurry contexts for perfectly clear visual images carries over into “Medium,” the Zuckerman Museum of Art’s approach to our experience of the invisible world and the evidence by which we discern its existence or the aftermath of the ways in which we interact with it. “Invisible” is not always the same as “unheard”; the ambiguities of the auditory are so much a part of this exhibition that its catalogue incorporates a vinyl record alongside a poster documenting the essential facts about the artists and archives that appear in it.

Here it’s best to divide the subject matter into categories in a way that the exhibition itself doesn’t. The fact that the categories will still overlap, or that it will remain uncertain whether one work should be consigned to this category rather than that one, will serve as confirmation of the exhibition’s complex hypothesis about the indefinability of human beings’ transactions with the world of spirits, regardless of whether the spirits are real entities (or evidence interpreted as real entities), traces of past events turned into immaterial memories, or conscious fictions turning immaterial perceptions into material form.

The most documentary portion of the exhibition is, in fact, a collection of fictions intended to deceive, based on the search for hard evidence of spirit encounters in which the investigators for the Society for Psychical Research firmly believed but wished to authenticate. The manifestations of ectoplasm by purported mediums all proved to be hoaxes. Less easily documented phenomena, however, proved to be elusively but persuasively convincing.

This is why later recorded testimony of peculiar encounters and poltergeist phenomena (from the University of West Georgia research program that succeeded J. B. Rhine’s laboratory at Duke University) appears on the LP that serves both as the exhibition catalogue and as an independent piece of sound art, edited/created by Ben Coleman. The paranormal occupies a complex and unstable epistemological space; it skitters off when subjected to laboratory conditions, but manifests anew under circumstances that seem both unpremeditated and genuine. It is frequently difficult to disentangle from imaginative experience.

One of the artworks in “Medium,” by Carrie Mae Weems, responds directly to the nineteenth century’s magic-lantern phantasmagoria or projected images by which ghosts were made to appear, for deception or for pleasurable entertainment. Another work in the show, a complex sound-and-object installation by T. Lang and George Long, evokes the experience of their respective ancestors and the parallel but distinctively different experiences of blacks and whites in the South of yesterday and today, and raises the question of memory and imagination in a more “dematerialized” and/or symbolic form. (Persons wishing more extensive discussions of these artworks can find them in reviews here and here.)

At this point, we may begin to discern the repeated themes of “Medium,” which are those of the dialectic between the deepest parts of historical experience, the role of imagination in mediating between sensory experience and memory, and the insufficiently theorized margins of sensory experience at which we may or may not begin to experience—something else. But what?

A deliciously comic metaphor for all these processes can be found in a historical phenomenon that otherwise seems out of place in the exhibition, the “bone records” of the Cold War era in which music aficionados in the Soviet Union imported contraband styles of Western music by etching the forbidden recordings onto used x-ray sheets in lieu of cutting them onto vinyl blanks. The readily available substitute material thus becomes an inadvertent multilayered metaphor: forbidden knowledge is smuggled past the censor by making use of a material that reveals the depths of the human body, thus permitting the dematerialized experience of music, in which the air around us is altered through the interaction of two objects which in themselves are not music (the record and the record player, the instrument and the body of the performer, the patterned software and the hardware altered by it). The imaginative leap that made the bone records possible and the experience of forbidden knowledge that came from playing them constitutes the contribution of what used to be called “the human spirit” or “the human imagination.”


What happens to that spirit upon bodily death, and whether that spirit co-inhabits the world with other spirits that are not human, is the subject of the history of religions, although that history overlaps significantly with the history of art, thus making “Medium” a feasible exhibition. The show begins in medias res historically, with the rise of spiritualism in the nineteenth century as a way of channeling what had previously been contained within religious strictures dissolved by newfound skepticism. The Society for Psychical Research and its counterparts in Europe arose as efforts to bring a scientific spirit of analysis to the exploration of the margins of the human experience. Today’s firm demarcation between experience restrained by religious dogma and denied by professional skeptics has relegated the paranormal to the realm of popular entertainment, as P. Seth Thompson’s overlap of movie stills from Poltergeist indicates (while giving us a glimpse of how the medium of the movies operates on our inward spirit). In this cultural climate, artists such as Stephanie Dowda are left to create their own visual metaphors with which to cope with the traces left in memory and history in the wake of a mother’s death. Dowda’s photographs of landscapes intersected by overlapping straight lines are curiously reminiscent of the photographs in which the late Gretchen Hupfel made visible the currents of energy carrying the invisible signals of our information media through the atmosphere. We live in a torrent of data of which we are unaware until it finds a channel.

Whether we leave invisibly charged traces on the objects we have used, and whether perceptives can be the channel by which to translate those traces, is explored by Dan R. Talley in his juxtaposition of photographs of ordinary objects with the information that psychics extracted from them at his request. Or rather, they are juxtaposed with the story about extracting that information; as with the nineteenth-century pseudo-mediums whose faked ectoplasm is both ridiculed and transmuted into a different metaphor in Lacey Prpic Hedtke’s contemporary photographs of the female body, we have no way of knowing whether Talley is giving us a total fiction. (Fernando Orellana’s elaborate machines for detecting the presence of ghosts who might be drawn to the object from their past contained in the machine seem far more like a playful put-on with serious head-scratching at the edges; Talley’s dryly analytical account of his concept-laden process feels authentically earnest.)

Any account of any experience, whether backed up by ambiguous physical evidence or not, is potentially fraudulent. (See: “epistemic crisis,” at the beginning of this essay, regarding what happens when this epistemological truth rots the shared sense of trust on which society depends.) Hence it is important that “Medium” includes artwork from two encounters with the spirit world for which we have trustworthy observer data regarding the felt authenticity of the artist’s experience. For the sake of moving towards a phenomenology of the encounter with the invisible world, it seems equally important that they come from opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, and of almost every other conceptual spectrum one cares to create.

J. B. Murray’s “spirit writing,” which he deciphered by reading the revelations through a jar of water drawn from a well on his property, eventually morphed into quasi-figural imagery that he interpreted as illustrating the punishments waiting in Hell for the unrepentant. Illiterate and rural, Murray believed himself “in the hand of the Holy Spirit” (to quote the title of Mary Padgelek’s book about him) after “the sun came down” and the sun plus the rainbow from his garden hose (cf. the 17th century German mystic Jakob Boehme’s “light on the pewter dish”) gave him the power “to see what other folks can’t see.” Although the spirit writings acquired their vivid palette only after artist Andy Nasisse made art materials available to Murray, there is no reason to believe they fail in any degree to reflect the visions of the inner world in which, as Murray put it, “Jesus is stronger than hoodoo.” At the same time, they are deeply creative expressions of Murray’s own spirit (or personal psychology); no other visionary in the rural South produced drawings/writings exactly like Murray’s.

Shana Robbins produces a glitzy response to her own encounters with the spirit world that she has experienced in ayahuasca sessions in actual South American jungles and in self-invented sites for spiritual encounter from Iceland to downtown Atlanta. There is no reason to suppose her creative mythology is any less authentic than J. B. Murray’s. If we have difficulties with any aspects of Robbins’ practice, it is because we have difficulties with the aesthetics of the social milieu from which her practice arises.

Is the practice itself, regardless of the aesthetic terms in which she chooses to cast it, sufficiently efficacious to have penetrated at least the margins of the phenomena, phenomena to which the history of religions gives abundant testimony? How can we do justice to the question of whether or not someone’s practice is efficaciously transformative, rather than dismissing it ipso facto as a simple piece of theatre? Might we be able to assert responsibly that the contours of such practices cannot be adequately mapped by cheap reductionisms? Can we make such an assertion even though we claim (as we must do as moderns) that the phenomena encountered in such practices, phenomena of which most of us have had no direct experience, are given to practitioners through cultural and biological filters—and that these filters make it difficult to discern, whether from the inside or the outside of the practice, whether there is anything authentically “other” occurring?

Can we compose a theory that acknowledges the role of imaginative discourse and composition in the creation of spiritual experience as well as of all forms of art, without reducing the former to a version of the latter? Can we, as Ben Coleman’s catalogue essay/liner notes imply, devise a method of investigation that fully incorporates aesthetic and spiritual experience in a theoretical format that does justice to the full dimensionality of both?

This epistemological issue is what I find most interesting, but it isn’t the only one that curators Justin Rabideau and Teresa Bramlette Reeves have pursued. As I have implied by word choices here and there, we are “haunted” by history, memory, and the gender and ethnic categories into which we are born. There is a reason that the metaphor of ghosts and haunting is used so often to describe personal obsessions and personal and collective trauma, and the show is as interested in that as in the ontological status of disembodied visitors. A catalogue of considerable dimensions could have been compiled that unpacks all of these implications and cross-connections.

However, the vinyl record (with optional digital download of its contents) that constitutes the exhibition catalogue is not that sort of document. It incorporates the show’s auditory aspects (the things that have historically been left out of hard-copy exhibition catalogues, except in those few catalogues containing a supplementary CD or DVD) into a creative anthology of sound art in which documentation blends with experimental compositions. The spectrum of responses that runs between raw experience and refined artworks is thus honored, even as it is obliquely analyzed in the liner notes. The show’s visual aspects are illustrated in the folder of artist statements and biographies accompanying the album. This one-page format allows for the concurrent perusal of the entire range of aesthetic and evidentiary material in this remarkable exhibition, and thus permits the formation of hypotheses along the lines that I have here suggested.

I still would have liked to have a conventional catalogue full of scholarly essays with footnotes and bibliography. But had Reeves and Rabideau gone that route, this present essay would have been impossible. It is far better that they chose not to foreclose our options on a topic on which the options ought to be left as wide open as responsible analysis will permit.

—Jerry Cullum, November 12, 2017




Saturday, July 8, 2017

a provisional, belated review of Kirstin Mitchell, "Midnight at the Oasis," Hathaway Contemporary, Atlanta GA

Hegel famously wrote regarding philosophical reflection, “When philosophy paints its gray in gray, then has a form of life grown old. Philosophy cannot rejuvenate it, but only understand it. The owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the coming of the dusk.”

The tropical sky colors that dominate one end of Kirstin Mitchell’s “Midnight at the Oasis” are those of dawn, not dusk, although the nearly monochromatic painting on the wall to the left could be taken to represent the blazing color of a tropical sunset. In any case, gray on gray has nothing to do with it.

On the other hand, the diptych of rosy-fingered dawn flanks a pedestal containing a black egg-shaped sculpture, an archetypal image that leads in so many different contradictory directions (you could look it up) that we had better try not to overinterpret. At the very least, however, the dark interrupts the light for a reason. That it happens to be an egg, as dark as the midnight at the sort of oasis that is the source of life in the desert, would probably provide myth-oriented critics with a fairly rich vein of free association from which to extract more meanings than Mitchell ever intended to put there.

What is entirely intentional, however, is the faceoff between the paradisal brightness at one end of the gallery and the dark of Limousine at the other end. Here, too, however, the combination of elements is meant to defeat any easy retreat into symbolism; the dark-gray rubber sheet that forms a drape against the even darker panel is robbed of any purely funereal associations by the title, which evokes fashionable luxury as well as solemn occasions of state (although it also happens to be the proprietary name of the pigment found in the painting, which itself is a much more complex interplay of modes of darkness than it seems to be at first distant glance).

What is deliberate also is the use of rubber in lieu of woven cloth in the drapery that dominates the majority of the large wall pieces. The tensions between the sensual, industrial, and, not incidentally, tropical associations of rubber could easily lead critics off into yet another feast of free association, one that could fill volumes.

The tone of depth and sophistication established by the conscious arrangement of work on the gallery walls is undercut by the anomalous comedy of two vaguely fruit-shaped sculptures perched upon a chunk of Styrofoam flotsam in the center of the highly polished floor. The dark reflection of Limousine stretches towards the shore of this odd interruption, an oasis of humor in a conversation of color and form that encodes more serious matters than might first appear. (A blue cube also lurks in a corner between a purely white work on the left and the not-quite-black dark of “Limousine’ on the right, almost daring us to find symbolic meaning in a piece that may be there simply because it adds to the visual rhythm.)


Any doubt as to whether we are meant to engage in intellectual free play as well as sensual enjoyment and formal appreciation of spatial arrangement is dispelled by Mitchell’s artist statement, which consists of artfully selected etymological passages from dictionaries, dancing adroitly among historical associations of the words used in the titles of the works and of the exhibition. We very quickly notice the presence of body fluids, social relationships, practical activities with symbolic implications, facts from the sciences, and enough other suggestive linkages to keep attentive readers busy for longer than they might wish.

At this point, you have very little time left to view the exhibition ("you" meaning those of you reading this on July 8, 2017, within feasible distance of Hathaway Contemporary, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.) in something resembling tranquility. If at all possible, you should attend the closing reception, which includes artist talks by Mitchell and by Karen Schwartz, on July 11.

All photos in this review are © Kirstin Mitchell.

Friday, May 15, 2015

another note on global and local biennales

Some years ago, I staged a two-artist biennale that existed only in the form of catalogue documentation of an event that never took place, to make the point that this was the only way in which most of us would ever experience the sprawling immensities of the Venice Biennale or Documenta or a host of other global art events. Today I would have to establish a website, but there are so many bogus documentations of all sorts on the internet today that the thrill is gone. We trust (mostly) in the accuracy of the reportage on biennales that few of us will ever visit.

The idea of a biennale that one has no option
but to visit, however, appeals to me. One with no curators, a self-organizing biennale within the parameters of a conceptually vague theme, is a commentary on the DIY aesthetic that may not have been intended when the definers (not the organizers) created the idea of the Mardin Biennial.

Of course, the project has a website, but I am not sure how one goes about documenting the event comprehensively. The notion of the carnivalesque, the site-specific that can only be experienced, but on a more intimately local level that demands total immersion and cannot be exported—unlike the video and sound pieces of the global biennials that can't be captured on a website but can be restaged in the world's museums. The Mardin Biennial sounds to an outsider like a hybrid between the critical deglobalized biennial Ali Artun calls for and Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence—a place where ignored or forgotten everyday objects become the stuff of fictional biographies or biographical fictions.

Here is the entire content of an email about it that I received from one of the only non-local artists in the biennial. Given the caveats I have just recited, I have no way of determining the authenticity of all this other than getting on a plane to the city in question:



Mythologies
3rd Mardin Biennial
15 May – 15 June, 2015


Opening 15th of May at 6 pm


3rd Mardin Biennial organized by Mardin Cinama Society. The conceptual frame of the biennial was set up with reference to Ali Artun.

Within the conceptual framework of ‘Mythologies’, the most essential aspect of the biennale is that it will have no appointed curator. Instead, the biennale will be realized with the contribution of local people in Mardin as well as other volunteered individuals including:

Döne Otyam, Ferhat Özgür, Fırat Arapoğlu, Mehmet Baran, Claudia Segura Campins, Sait Tunç, Mesut Alp, Fikret Atay, Hakan Irmak, Özge Ersoy, Ferhat Satıcı, Hülya Özdemir, Canan Budak, Can Bulgu.

Mardin is centrally located within a geography of antique civilizations, stretching from Egypt to India. It still retains noteworthy traces of the symbolic world, the universe of icons and myths, the art and literature it has created, amassed and, in turn, benefitted for centuries. These traces still survive in the daily lives of Mardin’s inhabitants, in their living environment as much as in the ethnographical and architectural heritage of the city.

The talismans, amulets, icons, jewels, garments, books, pictures, photographs, pots and pans, glasses and dishes, rugs and carpets accumulated in houses, shops, workshops form what can be called ‘cabinets of curiosities’: private ‘museums’ where objects form mysterious relations with one another and write unspoken myths. In these ‘museums’, antiquities and ordinary objects, as well as various times that are inscribed in them, constantly bestow new significations upon each other. You may come across such dream worlds on the workbench of a knife-sharpener, or the counter of a coppersmith’s; at a pigeon-trainer’s stall; in a church or a bar as well as in the nooks and crannies of houses. The objective of the 3rd: the poetry and magic to these cabinets of curiosities that have long ago abandoned them. It calls on artists to explore their memory, to write their mythology.

The 3rd Mardin Biennial is curated by a collective, constituted mostly of locals. Likewise, many of the artists are also locals, among them also artisans and craftsman. Hence, this version of the Mardin Biennial suggests an alternative approach by questioning the prevailing biennial procedure where a single curator, who is unfamiliar with the context and setting, single-handedly decides who to exhibit, what to exhibit, and how to exhibit it. This Biennial vehemently opposes the reduction of the local cultural milieu to an exhibition décor and the Mardin Biennial is to return identification of the locals with an exhibition forced on them, in other words, to the branding of Mardin by an autocratic curator who imposes a certain view upon the city, its memory and its history. Instead, the proposal is to conceive the Biennial as a Mardin carnival, therefore evoking such concepts as game, chance, spontaneity, serendipity, intimacy and collectivity as means for political resistance. Such a biennial will undoubtedly be more captivating for the locals who had previously been alienated from art events in their own city as well as for the visiting outsiders who will be exposed to exhibits that truly engage with their context. More importantly, it will give the artists that will participate in the Mardin Biennial a chance to experience this city and bond with its unique imaginative and poetic world.

Venues

Mor Efrem Manastırı, Alman Karargahı, Keldani Kilisesi, Mardin Müzesi, Videoist , Açık Hava Sineması (Sun Cinema), Mardin Bazaar.

Participating artists

Ahmet Elhan // Aikaterini Gegisian // Alban Muja // Ani Setyan // Antonio Cosentino // Aysel Alver // Babak Kazemi // Canan Budak // Claire Hooper // David Blandy // Deniz Aktaş // Dilan Bozyel // Dilara Akay // Eda Gecikmez // Elena Bajo // Erick Beltrán // Ethem Erkan // Evrim Kavcar // Fani Zguro // Fırat Engin // Gabi Yerli // Hakan Kırdar // Halil Altındere // Haris Epaminonda // Iratxe Jaio & Klaas Van Gorkum // Işıl Eğrikavuk-Jozef Erçevik Amado // İbrahim Ayhan // Iman Issa // Isabel Rocamora // Juan Del Gado // Khaled Hafez // Krassimir Terziev // Lena Von Lapschina // Mehtap Baydu // Melih Apa // Metin Ezilmez // Miquel Garcia // Mike Berg // Murat Akagündüz // Murat Germen // Mürüvvet Türkyılmaz // Nadi Güler // Necla Rüzgar // Nezir Akkul // Nooshin Farhid // Oriol Vilanova // Özlem Günyol-Mustafa Kunt // Pedro Torres // Romain Kronenberg // Sait Tunç // Stuart Brisley // Şefik Özcan // Thierry Payet // Ursula Mayer // Yavuz Tanyeli // Yaygara

Videoart program curated by Claudia Segura Campins and Özge Ersoy (with the collaboration of Loop Fair 2014)

Anne-Valerie Gasc// Antonio Paucar// Levi van Veluw// Oscar Muñoz// Zhou Tao

For more information: www.mardinbienali.org



Wednesday, May 6, 2015

"And all directions I come to you": not a review of a preview, please

Wild Beast Zero: Some Reflections (Perhaps in a Funhouse Mirror; That, I Know Not) on an Encounter in a Preview of glo’s “And all directions I come to you”


Jerry Cullum



I have been looking recently at a good many books from my youthful years…some, like Goethe’s Faust or Charles Francis Potter’s The Lost Years of Jesus Revealed, from really, really youthful, as in age fourteen. “Looking at,” not “reading,” because I am trying to sort through more than a lifetime’s worth of accumulated detritus. (I inherited things from my parents’ own early lives, like elegantly designed sets of playing cards and bridge tally sheets, things I can neither use nor discard. Kind of like personal memory in that regard.)

One of the books I have thus encountered is the first volume of Erich Neumann’s Jungian text The Origins and History of Consciousness, a book that set my future course rather firmly when I read it in my senior year of college. It wasn’t an assigned text at my experimental interdisciplinary school; in fact, I had to smuggle an in-depth study of depth psychology into my personal curriculum by way of a seminar in literary criticism in which I proposed to approach criticism through phenomenology and “a theology of consciousness.”

So imagine my delight back then at the synchronistic encounter, in the secondhand copy of Neumann’s book that I found at Haslam’s bookshop, with what now seems to me to be an unintended work of conceptual art; the happy accident certainly reflected the ironic visual and textual juxtapositions I had produced the year before in a wall-filling collage in my dorm room without knowing that the genre had a name.

“The fact this volume is being used as a textbook does not mean that the University endorses its contents from the standpoint of morals, philosophy, theology, or scientific hypotheses.” Think these thoughts, in other words, but do not believe them.

Study consciousness, read books that claim to give an analysis of how consciousness operates, but hold fast to your verbally expressed opinions even if everything in the book suggests that you should mistrust your verbally expressed opinions.




I laughed at the idea of a fundamentalist university having to offer a course undermining all its presuppositions, whereas my religiously liberal college offered a smattering of this opinion in our freshman year alongside Freud’s demolition of religion, and never mentioned it again.

I wanted to understand why human beings do all the incredibly strange things that they do, and here was a system that explained it all from the Paleolithic caves onward. All of it, visual art, warfare, erotic obsession, egomania, altruism, pyromaniac barn burning (I’m borrowing that one from the late James Hillman, whose books I also discovered in that year), and whatever else you can give a name to or fail to find a name for.

The only thing that bothered me was that C. G. Jung reported some very strange occurrences in his life in the autobiographical Memories, Dreams, Reflections that his system apparently failed to explain. He didn’t seem to notice the contradiction.

He did express the opinion that empirical research would eventually establish the relationship between the verbal and nonverbal behavior that he analyzed so convincingly and their neurological underpinnings.

All these years later, I remain baffled by why human beings do all the things they do; since all cultures seem equally alien to me and all of them seem to be doing no more than establishing provisional reasons for responding to their physical surroundings in the way that they do, it should come as no surprise that I now find all the psychological explanations to be grounded in the personality types of the people who espouse them. Lacanians have Lacanisn personalities, and I don’t like most of them very much. Jungians have Jungian personalities, and people who believe that consciousness is entirely computational have the kind of personalities you would expect people would have who believe that sort of thing.

It all seems extremely odd. The sciences of human behavior and human culture are constantly claiming to have a degree of certitude that confers predictive value, but they never quite manage to describe the entire empirical situation satisfactorily.

As Erich Heller wrote about Nietzsche’s philosophy, and I quote from fallible memory, “Some philosophies are like mountains; you climb them, or they are too tough for you. In either case, you can be certain of your relationship to them. Other philosophies are like longstanding cities; to ask ‘Do you know Nietzsche?’ is like asking ‘Do you know Rome?’ The answer is simple only if you have never been there.”

By and large, we exist in that latter relationship to our own minds and bodies, and to the surroundings in which we operate. We are strangers to ourselves.

Which, and I swear I was not trying to go there, turns out to be the word (“strangers”) that is operative in the creation of gloAtl’s new dance performance “And all directions I come to you.”

I have about as alien a relationship to dance as I do to human cultures or human psychology; dancers are, whatever else they are, at home in their bodies, which given the right kind of prodding will pretty much do what the dancers want them to do. (I seem to recall a passage from the Apostle Paul about all of this, but I am trying to repress that digression.)

This particular six-hour performance is going to be presented nomadically in parts of Central Park, courtesy of Nato Thompson and Creative Time. I once had an argument (actually, more of an indignant shouting match) with Nato Thompson when he dissed an artist in the audience who just wanted to sit in her studio and make artwork, rather in the way that I am sitting alone in my apartment writing and revising this reflection; I yelled that only an extrovert could possibly view with disdain persons who wanted to sit in seclusion until they had prepared a face to meet the faces that they meet (a “face,” a.k.a. an artwork, and I am quoting T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in that last phrase). All that would have taken too much time to say, so what I yelled was, “Spoken like a true extrovert!” and I don’t remember what I said after that.

For all of that, even introverts have to show up in public occasionally, however much they associate public interaction with past embarrassments. (Public interaction is not the same thing as appearing onstage, where they are not interacting with an audience, they are performing solo.)

Thus did I find myself an audience member at a private preview of the artwork that Lauri Stallings and dancers had been preparing in seclusion in the studio and were now activating for persons whom Lauri considered friends before trying it out on complete strangers. I knew Lauri but not the dancers, being as how I don’t interact with folks after their performances, not if there is a side door through which to avoid face-to-face encounter.

I knew in advance that the piece would require quite a bit of perambulation by the audience, having become rather proud at my capacity to follow the wrong trail and be seduced by the sideshow being performed by a single dancer while the spectacular stuff was taking place at the opposite end of the piazza or the skatepark or wherever. Since I have long noted my tendency to zig when a passerby from the opposite direction is sagging, thus creating mutual immobility and the occasional collision, it came as no surprise that I was constantly occupying the vacant space that an entire troupe of dancers was about to traverse at top speed.

Hence my attempt to get out of the way when the entire group came sweeping by me in what seemed like yet another unintended path-blocking on my part. I continued to retreat, trying to get out of the way, until I realized I was the way.

At that point there was nothing for it but to freeze in my tracks and assume a neutral position, facing the audience but looking neither at them nor at the dancers. It is a posture I have mastered over the years after great effort.

[Photo © Catherine Wilmer and used by prior permission.]

And I stayed frozen and immobile until it became obvious that the dancers were also trying to establish eye contact, a strategy well known from previous gloATL appearances and one of the reasons I try to stay in the back row at anybody at all’s performances known to include audience interaction.

It is one of those introvert’s moments in which it becomes apparent that this is probably the greatest amount of intimacy they have experienced since some rather distressingly distant time, if ever, after which they embrace the artificiality of the situation and go with the flow. (I was too much in the moment to remember it then, but I know from the one scene in which I co-starred in Carol Lafayette’s video based on my poem Skateboarding in Sarajevo, the intense gaze of the performer is accompanied by counting off the seconds.)


We now know, thanks to the notorious New York Times article of a few months ago about how to fall in love with one another when you can’t seem to make it happen, that mutual gazing makes oxytocin levels rise regardless of your opinions in the matter. I loved the whole experience. And the later delectable, deliberate anomaly of the way in which the whole audience was eventually brought into personal communion was fascinating because it worked when I have been in so many similar situations in which it did not, including ones in which I very much longed for it to happen.

I have no idea how all this is going to play out in the company of total strangers* together in Central Park. It would be charming to see some of it happen.

I have omitted, because I was not asked to write about it (this is my response to some other audience members’ request—not glo’s), the actual subtext of the whole performance, the burden of Southern history and the endless task of creating union where there has never, ever been unity. (“The burden of Southern history” is the title of a once-famous book, as I find it necessary to state explicitly before I get credited with coining a phrase.) See the Facebook page for ‘And all directions I come to you.”

The title of this essay comes from the name of the swarming maneuver that forms the central focus of this narrative; “And all directions I come to you” is composed of something like 138 “systems”—not sure of the number—that are invoked in sequence, thus breaking up a very long event into manageable units of movement that can be changed in response to circumstances.


*This phrase is a semi-quotation from Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” to which I listened obsessively during my loneliest periods of isolation at age twenty-two in Santa Barbara.






Thursday, April 9, 2015

My manifesto regarding art reviewing landed with a predictable dull thud, garnering a tenth of the response from the Facebook link than the reaction to my Facebook posting of an icon of the Entry into Jerusalem with a comment on Byzantine objects in context, a post that was universally misinterpreted but I haven't had time to explain what I was actually talking about since the responses that it did elicit were right on target, just on target about a parallel topic.

So given the lack of excitement about the topic of why there are no art reviewers, I shouldn't spend too much time bewailing again the fact that art reviewing is mostly limited to people who don't have a life, or who have sufficient predictable income so as not to need to hold down two day jobs and one night one. The problem is that there are not enough people who can write, are motivated to write, and don't have a life or are able to allot their limited free time to make space for art reviewing in it.

This has to be the reason some of the shows not yet reviewed have gone unreviewed. Case in point would be "Gathered" at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia: some stunning works by artists we previously didn't know about (and whoever took up the challenge, I now realize, should have limited themselves to discussing artists they had never heard of previously). Seventy-seven artists makes for an unreviewable show, the more so in that the work ranges from pleasurable surprises from artists we thought we knew well already to pleasurable discoveries to the inevitable seeming missteps that were probably made for perfectly defensible reasons. One person's misstep is another person's stroke of genius. These will be the works that other people would regard as the best things in the show. Maybe Andy Warhol was right when he commented something to the effect of, "I like the type of critic that just puts people's names down."

Other shows require so much question-asking and thought about how to present them that by the time I know how to talk about the show, the show's over. Item: Katherine Behar at Eyedrum, where we'll have to wait for Meredith Kooi's review for Art Papers to get the scoop on how well Behar handles the well-worn trope of machines that keep replicating themselves and performing functions designed by humans long after the species that designed them thus has gone extinct. Behar's functioning machines, based on underlying parts from already existing kinetic tchochkes, are as impossibly cute as the robotic critters of several well-known sci-fi movie fantasies; they include an actual 3-D printer turning out plastic jackets for the adjacent population of machines that do something or other; whether these are the ones that emit the Morse-code cries of "Mommy! Daddy!" I'm not clear on.

Ryan Coleman's reworkings of a familiar visual genre at Sandler Hudson, but incorporating his past expertise with turning out animation cels, is another case of something not getting written about unless someone has stepped forward since the last time I checked. I could go on, but I have already had arguments with people in the community (not with the legendary gatekeepers, who keep the gate much less stringently than people imagine) about which of the many other unreviewed shows deserve to be first past the post.

Since Nicholas Adams prodded me to go look at the Georgia State MFA shows, I should say you have one and one half more days (I think) to see some remarkably accomplished work by Adams, Lauren Gunderson, and Kelly Stevenson, but I have to rush off to an appointment at the Papermaking Museum where there is a historically and aesthetically important exhibition of a seventeenth-century (I think) atlas with revealingly colonialist border illuminations. Post links to your pics in the comment thread, people. Unless comments have been disabled and I don't know about it.

More later, I would hope.


Sunday, March 29, 2015

Art Reviewing, Art Criticism, and the Dissemination of Art Information

Art Reviewing, Art Criticism, and Crowdsourcing


I have recently had a conversation about “good bad art” and “bad good art,” by which I mean several different things in both categories.

“Good bad art” can be art that has everything wrong with it except faultless technique, or art that is unselfconsciously wrong in terms of genre or subject matter but that approaches that genre or subject matter in a way that redeems the artwork from the status of kitsch, or shades off into what I call defensible guilty pleasures—art that has such egregious problems on certain levels that its virtues do not really redeem it, but we love it anyway because it touches the parts of our personality that were formed prior to the age of four.

“Bad good art” is to be found in many galleries—art that meticulously rehearses well-worn strategies without contributing a scintilla of personal passion or imagination to the process, or art that imitates current passions and fashions in ways that work well enough, but really do no more than play with ideas and visual themes for which other artists metaphorically and occasionally literally are sweating blood. And there are many other kinds of bad good art, not based on passionless reproduction but nevertheless falling short in some way or another, difficult to define except on a case by case basis—one case in point being pompously meaningless or unnecessarily opaque conceptualism proclaiming its superiority. (What one person perceives as pomposity is another person’s deep seriousness, as any working critic learns very early when she or he praises something as being deeply serious.) Middlebrow art being inflated to conceptual greatness by insertion into a framework of ideas that can barely support it would be another commonplace type of bad good art—but anyone who claims that this is a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes had better be prepared to back up their claim with acutely reasoned assessments.

The problem is, as I have implied above, is that people have perfectly valid reasons for liking every one of these things, even the ones they think they ought not to like. We are all shaped by our personal experience before the age of four, and we are all shaped by the social context in which we live and move and have our being. When we are overwhelmed with excitement by something that may on reflection turn out to be not all that great, what drives our excitement is usually a combination of personal factors.

Plenty of people dislike “good good art”—in fact, there are subgenres of it that do nothing for me, and I have to labor very hard to muster the enthusiasm to discuss just why this art is as good as it is on every level. Even more people (or at least it seems that way to the cognoscenti) like “bad bad art.”

Lowbrow is distinguished by the wish to find the good bad art out there in genres awash in bad bad-artmaking, and to show rather than say why it is good. Just as with every other genre traditional or transgressive, there is good lowbrow and bad lowbrow, and the genre itself has fallen out of fashion, I think, because its point has been made, just as nobody wanted to use the term postmodern any more once it was recognized that what Zygmunt Bauman calls liquid modernity was a different social and aesthetic environment from the sets of assumptions and economic conditions under which modernism flourished and in which what we called modernity took on its distinguishing shape.

But I digress.

The point I actually wanted to get to is that art criticism ought to be devoted to contextualizing and whatever degree of objective evaluating can be done—and I am not sure how we assign relative proportions of success to people whose art fails because they meant to do that, people whose art succeeds because (not “even though”) they have no idea why their artmaking is successful, and so on. There are semi-objective standards of comparison that seem to obtain across many cultures and subcultures, but they are modified in each cultural context, and comparison is a difficult business. There is even good kitsch and bad kitsch, although there the points of comparison are so challenging that it takes something like Tyler Stallings’ fabled exhibition tracing the birth of black velvet painting to make us contemplate why there ought to be, and is, an art history book about black velvet painting.

Art reviewing or art journalism is something else again. It sits somewhere between critical analysis and consumer guide, usually with the extreme discomfort that comes from being positioned between opposing categories.

Most artists and galleries would like to have their two-thousand-word analysis, preferably with the good stuff parked up front like in an old-style newspaper story, not like academic articles where the argument is made step by step and what journalists would call the lede is buried at the very end, where we discover at last the fundamental insight that all this analysis has been preparing us to realize. (This is why academic journals frequently insist on the inclusion of a hundred-word précis, introducing the conclusions to which the article eventually comes.)

The real artworld desire, though, is for a vehicle for marketing, whether it is called that or not. How many shows do we wish we had seen (whether we are art buyers or only art viewers), had we only known that they were there, and how to get to them in a time that suits our crowded schedules? But that we wish we had known existed, first and foremost.

Art reviewing sites are wedded to the older model of recommending the best of the best, and more realistically, whichever parts of the best of the best can be gotten to and be written about by a limited pool of art writers. Increasing the number of art writers decreases the number of brilliant shows that go unreviewed, but does nothing to solve the problem of the greater number of shows that go unmentioned.

Art reviewing sites also are confronted with the problem of discerning what on earth “the best of the best” really means, when “best” is defined so differently in different communities. We might well be left with the problem of wishing to write about the best good bad art, for example, in some month when it is more interesting than any of the bad good art that is out there. At best, we write occasionally about why good bad art deserves attention, and why bad good art is sometimes so unremittingly bad.

But then other communities, some of them quite well informed indeed, will insist that we are writing nonsense, although they are much more likely to say that we have our heads inserted into an anatomically impossible orifice.

Subcultures create critical discussions of their own, of which the dominant culture (if it deserves to be called a culture at all these days, rather than a consensus) is usually unaware. This permits feelings of superiority that are not just an unjustified hipper-than-thou, but it means that there are all sorts of shows and events that go unpublicized outside of social media. There are an equal number of traditional shows and events that are well publicized, but never reviewed, because they will generate a traditionally minded audience without the necessity of being written about.

SCAD had (it’s been years since I looked for them, so I don’t know if the experiment was abandoned) interview-based videos surveying art shows. The problem with interview-based videos in general (which have continued) is that they are also time-based, and few people have the time to sit and listen just to find out whether this is something in which they would be interested.

Facebook friends (I have no idea what is evolving on the other social media sites) seem to be posting individual images from current exhibitions, and short videos devoid of commentary. This makes it possible to tell at a glance whether this is something in which we personally would be interested, without producing the impression that we have now found out enough about it to know that we are happy that it exists but do not feel the need to see it in person. (This latter perception is usually wrong—non-digital work usually needs to be seen directly, not via a digital reproduction—but understandable. That is, however, another subject entirely.)

I now reach my long-deferred conclusion. Just in case you are skimming this, as well you should.

Oughtn’t we to have a single go-to site that incorporates this sort of information? Yes, yes, yes, I know it would be cluttered with personal puffery in no time if it were not hedged about with crowd-enforced rules—but unspoken rules of behavior have already evolved in the friends network to which I allude. People seldom post every single work in their exhibition; they pick and choose, and discreetly provide a URL for more information. Friends and other strangers (I quote Bob Dylan with that phrase) who are enthusiastic about a show are even more credible sources, but there are many occasions when we would not know about very good work if the artist were not engaging in a species of self-publicizing that is more than braggadocio.

Some friends (not on Facebook) plan their weekends by investigating the gallery websites and looking at works by the artists having openings (not necessarily the works to be exhibited in the upcoming show). These folks already self-edit because they know what they like, and they do not expect to find anything that interests them at certain galleries—but these ipso facto uninteresting exhibition venues are different galleries for different folks (sorry to echo the wording of the late Fritz Perls’ annoying maxim).

When I suggest that these folks might be missing something and ought to be given a more comprehensive way of rapidly perusing the available options, I am told that there are link-based arts calendars for that. But bare lists of names with clickable ways to get more information require more patience than most folks have. We have nothing in between listings and, if I may allude to a literary reference I have been trying in vain to track down, more than we wanted to know about penguins.

Right now, one-sentence verbal summations combined with something like Terry Kearns’ short exhibition videos seem like an excellent way of accessing basic information that can then be followed up on. (I assume the gallery URL could be embedded in the video caption.) Terry Kearns has said that although he is fulfilling a perceived need, he doesn’t want to take it up as a profession.

We have new ways of accessing information; we ought to figure out how to use them in ways that benefit communities with a wide variety of interests, technological savvy, and attention spans.





Thursday, March 26, 2015

Nick Madden's "I'll Die High" at Eyedrum

One of the greater artworld injustices is the lack of attention paid to Nick Madden's "I'll Die High" at Atlanta's Eyedrum. A major reason for this may be the show's bizarre violation of categories: cartoonish kinetic sculpture is not supposed to be an appropriate vehicle for thoughtful consideration of death, especially the death of one parent by cancer and the inner death of the other parent via dementia.



Waiting features a crank allowing viewers to make the figure's teeth chatter, a strange, excellent metaphor for the isolated nervousness of kin in hospital waiting rooms everywhere. The show continues in this vein, ending with a marquee-like sign reminding us that one day we will die.



The meaning of this exhibition isn't entirely clear without the information provided by Eyedrum staff, and that may be its chief problem. Viewers have had no trouble making up stories about things like this figure about which we are invited to pull gently on the cord until we see the light (which does eventually appear, for the patient viewer).

There is only one day remaining in the exhibition as I write this, but a closing reception is scheduled for Friday evening, March 27.

Counterforces and Other Little Jokes